Taking Tea With Joseph Needham

Dr Noel Joseph Terrence Montgomery Needham CH, FRS, FBA (1900-95), Master of Caius College, Cambridge, was a pioneering biochemist, and also the author of a definitive, multi-volume history of Chinese science, which made him a hero in China. Additionally, he was a brilliant linguist who could speak, read and write Mandarin Chinese, the first director of the science section of UNESCO, a Christian socialist, accordion-player, enthusiastic nudist, Morris dancer, and steam railway enthusiast.


I am standing at the door of the Master’s Lodge, Caius College, Cambridge, on a spring day in 1967. As an officer of the university’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) group, I had written to the Master of the college to ask him to take part in a symposium the group were planning on chemical and biological warfare. Needham had written back inviting me to discuss the matter over afternoon tea. Picture a confident, ignorant, 19-year-old student – a grammar-school boy from an industrial town in the Midlands, a working-class kid unostentatiously revelling in living through the first-ever period in history when it was fashionable to be working-class. It was then less than a year since The Beatles had released Sergeant Pepper.

All that I knew about my host was that he had written a report on the alleged use of biological warfare by the Americans in the Korean War, a solitary fact supplied to me by a CND colleague. I was only six when the Korean War ended and not for nothing is it sometimes called ‘The Forgotten War.’ So there was some excuse for my complete ignorance: I was blithely unaware that Needham’s Korean report was a painful subject. The pain for Needham lay not in the recollection of the work of the investigating team, but in the recollection of the viciously hostile reception to the team’s report. The report came out at the height of the Cold War. The American government blacklisted Needham; at the (two-and-a-half-hour) press conference, the British Press shredded him; the propaganda arm of the British Foreign Office, the Information Research Department, orchestrated a disinformation campaign, briefing Tory MPs and selected journalists and BBC correspondents, and persuading two former Presidents of the Royal Society to write to the Times disowning the report; many of his Cambridge colleagues ostracised him. Needham was the 1950s equivalent of a paedophile-rapist-investment-banker.

I had no inkling of all this and Needham gave me no hint of it. He met me at the door (I discovered later that he refused to have any servants in the Master’s Lodge), a tall, smiling, silver-haired man, with big-rimmed glasses. Escorting me through to an enormous drawing room (large enough for an echo), his first question was: ‘What do you know about the Chinese tea ceremony, Michael?’ Beyond a wild surmise that tea-drinking was involved, I knew nothing. But I was about to be enlightened.

We discussed the symposium arrangements: he may have had a bloody nose over his report in the 1950s, but he was unbowed in the 1960s and very happy to take part. Mainly though, Needham’s conversation took the form of guidance through the tea ceremony. The pot and the cups were small, plain and seemingly ancient. He handed me a cup, with a small smile: ‘It is half-full because it is believed that friendship should fill the remainder of the cup. You must inhale the aroma first of all.’

I did so, though I have little sense of smell. Needham was adding more water to the pot: ‘Each cup has a different meaning, Michael…’

I began to wonder how many cups we were going to be drinking. As part and parcel of my general unpreparedness for this meeting, I had neglected to empty my bladder. Careless but not stupid, I intuited that to call for a comfort-break halfway through the proceedings would be unwelcome: I decided to sit it out.

‘… One cup signifies peace – that is the first cup. A second cup signifies enjoyment. The transition in meaning follows the transition in taste.’ I could hear more than the scholar’s voice: I also heard enthusiasm. But chiefly I was alarmed: alarmed by the multiplication of meanings and cups. We passed with glacial slowness to the ‘quiet’ cup and then onto ‘understanding.’ I began to admire more than Needham’s intellect: I started to envy him his iron bladder. Several geological epochs later, my ordeal and the tea ceremony came to an end, signified by swallowing the ‘truth’ cup. Dissembling enthusiastically about the subtle cup-to-cup transformations, I offhandedly asked to visit the lavatory. After showing me the way, Needham offered to give me a quick tour of the rambling Master’s Lodge. And herein lay another surprise.

We eventually arrived at a long portrait gallery of dead Masters, Caius College being an ancient foundation. On the whole, they were a pretty insipid, whey-faced crew. The exception was a portrait near the far end of the gallery – a looming, fierce, red-headed, full-bearded, middle-aged man, dressed like one of the Pilgrim Fathers – a solitary red flag amid a row of dirty white handkerchiefs. When we arrived at this portrait, Needham’s detached, tourist-guide manner changed: ‘This is my favourite predecessor, the Reverend William Dell.’

I was told that Dell, rector of a village in Bedfordshire, had been a leading preacher to the Parliamentary armies, a kind of seventeenth-century political commissar. In 1646, he both officiated at the wedding of Oliver Cromwell’s oldest daughter and preached the sermon at Westminster at the start of the new parliamentary session. Dell was an obvious candidate to keep the academic royalists in check during Cromwell’s Protectorate and was made Master of Caius in 1649. Needham rattled off for me William Dell’s projected university reforms: he threw the college open to the poor apprentices of the town; he wanted the undergraduates to study practical subjects like geography and maths, rather than theology and philosophy; he wanted them to spend half their time engaging in manual labour; and he proposed that universities should be established in every large town in the country. These plans all came to nothing with the Restoration of Charles II and Dell prudently resigned the Mastership in 1660. The Fellows of the college rejoiced to be shot of him. Several radical preachers were executed, but Dell was allowed to retire to his Bedfordshire rectory. Thirty antagonistic parishioners petitioned Parliament for his removal from the church, one of their complaints being that he had permitted a local tinker, John Bunyan, to preach the Christmas Day sermon. The petition was dismissed, but Dell was expelled from the church two years later, along with around a thousand other radical clergy, for opposing the 1662 Act of Uniformity, which re-imposed the authority of bishops in the Church of England.

University reform was a popular cause among my contemporaries and myself in 1960s, but in any case I would have warmed to the elderly Needham’s boyish enthusiasm, as he gestured and expounded beside the portrait of his bristling, liverish predecessor. It was plain to see that William Dell and Joseph Needham were cut from the same cloth. Had I known then about the ostracism of Needham by his university colleagues in the wake of the Korean War report, I might have drawn a still closer parallel between the two Masters.

Although Needham took part in the CND symposium, we never spoke again. In the years since, historical scholarship has not absolved Needham over the Korean War report. On the one hand, it is now admitted that the Americans did indeed have a biological weapons programme in the 1950s and it seems likely that they experimented with such weapons in Korea, probably with very limited success. However, on the other hand, the Soviet archive evidence shows that the Russians actively worked with the Chinese and Koreans to manufacture false evidence of US ‘germ’ warfare to show to Needham’s team of scientists. Perversely, Needham was right, but so were his critics: Needham was duped. Nevertheless, a blemish or two in a life of great achievement can make someone more attractively human.

I’m now about the same age as Joseph Needham was in 1967 and there’s something intriguing and a little embarrassing about my (very slight) connection with him, namely that he makes occasional appearances in my dreams. Why is it that some people appear in our dreams whom we knew only fleetingly and long ago? Perhaps because they possess some quality of integrity, of wholeness, that mutely attracts, like a dying butterfly on a windowsill. Joseph Needham had that quality for me.

About Michael Bloor

Michael Bloor is a retired sociologist living in Dunblane, Scotland. A published poet and essayist, he has recently discovered the exhilarations of short fiction, with pieces published in Breve New Stories, Ink Sweat & Tears, Fictive Dream, Platform for Prose, the Flash Fiction Press, Flash Fiction Magazine and Scribble.

Michael Bloor is a retired sociologist living in Dunblane, Scotland. A published poet and essayist, he has recently discovered the exhilarations of short fiction, with pieces published in Breve New Stories, Ink Sweat & Tears, Fictive Dream, Platform for Prose, the Flash Fiction Press, Flash Fiction Magazine and Scribble.

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